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On being a girl in computer science— a confession.

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I’m a programmer.  A software engineer by some standards.  And I’ve been coding since I was a little girl—I first started poking at BASIC on my dad’s TI99/4A around age five.  I note that neither of my parents are particularly tech-savvy, and I grew up in a household where there was no particular attention (that I can recall) given to the fact that as a young woman I could attain whatever career I wanted—it was just a given.

My love of programming, though, was not always.  What I loved so much as a child, I know now as a computer-science educator, was computer science itself.  I loved the puzzles, the “what-ifs”, and the technology—deeply and viscerally.  Programming was just a way to get to the good stuff.  A way of bending the computer to my will, forcing it to seek the answers to my deep, little questions about the nature of the universe, the mind, and even humanity.  By high school, where I was lucky enough to actually have access to a programming course (in the very early 90s), coding was just a game to me, a puzzle, a challenge.  I liked it because it was hard, and considered hard.  I liked the geeky mystique that surrounded it.  And I didn’t even notice that I was the only female in the class—a lack of awareness that persisted well into university.

In fact, the only time I noticed the gender inequality was when a female other than myself was present.  Suddenly my world became alien and I no longer felt comfortable being myself.  I simple never fit in with “the girls”.

Why not?

The reason lay in my own, innocent, and largely unconscious, perpetuation of the gender bias in computer science and technology:

Because girls don’t do things that I like.

And there it was.  It may seem innocent enough.  It may make perfect sense.  I wasn’t a kid (or teen, or adult) that did “girly” things.  I had no interest in makeup, most traditional toys aimed at girls, nor boys (except as my best pals).  I played with Transformers (the real ones, I note, made out of metal), and Robotix, and was in love with all things video games. I wanted to change the world, yes, but I wanted to do it through science and computers.  As a kid, I wanted to be an astronaut, and then a chemist, and then an astronomer, and then a physicist. 

In fact, so much did I think that my interests did not align with other girls that (in prime teenage fashion) I strongly railed against anything stereotypically female.  I actively reinforced the stereotype that computers were a guys’ thing, because in my thinking I was “just one of the guys”.  Here I was, a rare female interested in computers and technology and science, and I was unconsciously contributing to the divide.

I did, however, have some female friends.  They shared interests that intersected with my love of computers (and video games and science and math and martial arts).  Which was all I was really looking for—and if I may, is all any child is really looking for, namely someone with whom you resonate, and around whom you can be yourself.  Deep down I doubt I cared what gender you were, it simply was a fact that very few females shared my interests. So in my mind computers were a guys’ thing and I was an exception.

And this is the main problem (a problem that is a surprise to few): with rare exception, to this day we are still not providing an environment conducive to most girls connecting with this discipline.  

So how do we address this?

Here’s where I perhaps diverge from established thinking.

A lot of awesome people have been working on this for a very long time, and I really do applaud the efforts to reduce the gender divide.  But I see some disturbing trends toward creating contrived scenarios through affirmative-type action, or gratuitous “role models” that over-emphasize the very divide we’re trying to close.  When we spend too much time trying to create the perfect representation of a group for which other sub groups are underrepresented, we end up reinforcing silos of inclusion.  You give the message that you are included via this special, excluded area just for you.  And worse, that you should be happy being placed in these categories.  Meanwhile we’re distracted from the real goal to create a new culture around a naturally diverse representation of people doing, well, everything.  

Similarly, I also have grave concerns regarding activities and events that are for “girls only”.  These events instead enforce the stereotype, segregating girls and giving them (and everyone) a message that they are different.  It is a band-aid attempt at a solution to a problem that starts at a much younger age, and seriously neglects those girls (and women) who don’t want to be segregated (many of whom never even come out to such events, and whose voices are sadly never heard).  Children do not grow up into a segregated world, so why are we reinforcing that message?  Why are we not just creating a variety of activities that may appeal to boys or girls or both?  I can see taking issue with creating explicitly sexist activities, but there is nothing inherently sexist about having activities that may attract more of one gender than the other, especially when we make them available to everyone.

When we create “girl friendly” activities, we implicitly reinforce stereotypes of what girls should like.  This deeply troubles me.

It is a common practice, for example in university, to create events for “women in CS”.  And yet I hear (anecdotally) both men and women complaining about these events.  What I would really like to see is a study that looks at a full female population that includes those who do not attend such events and why they do not. If we are only surveying the females that come to these and related events we’re indulging a severe selection bias. 

I’ve seen so much energy spent on telling girls that “they can do it, too!”, but I worry what message this is really sending.  It seems to remind you that you belong to a minority, which is its own sort of reinforcement, much in the same way I was perpetuating gender bias as a kid.  But there are studies that show when you present kids just with  life as if it were normally always this way they simply accept it as such.

I fear that when you say, for example, that “yes, girls can do anything”, it first plants the idea that there is an inequality, before it attempts to combat this idea. It puts ideas in our children’s minds that we, in the very same breath, then attempt to discredit.  What if we never put those ideas in there in the first place?  Is that even possible?

What if we just put our energy into presenting to our kids the world as if they can do anything, without any mention of their gender, etc. explicitly, or otherwise?  And then kept working hard toward ensuring opportunities exist for all kids?

Many of us spend a lot of time trying to get young folks to choose a career in computer science when they’re really too young to make those kinds of decisions.  What if we just taught our kids about what computers can do, and worked toward a healthy appreciation for how vital computer science is to society and to a successful career, and then left them to decide on their own careers?  If we start young, really young, and simply presented all careers as gender/race/etc-neutral, and didn’t spend any energy defining special groups, what would happen?

I wonder.

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Addendum:
Thank you to the many folks in the comments who have brought up the criticism that they like the traditionally “girly” things. My intent was not to say that you can’t love those things and be in computer science—quite the opposite! Love what you love! Rather we want to avoid pigeonholing people into assuming they like these things (you like X because you’re female or you like Y because you’re male—how about you like X or Y because you’re a person?) and using computer science as a subconscious vehicle to enforce those constraints. Computer science is in need of diversity, absolutely. My point in this article was that we have to think critically of the message we’re sending about the value of diversity when we create events that potentially feed stereotypes. How can we set a better example of inclusivity and diversity that doesn’t reinforce silos? And, by extension, how can we find the ways in which we might be all might be unconsciously promoting these biases?

Thanks, everyone, for reading, and for all of your insightful comments. I hope it’s spurred some interesting and fruitful conversations wherever you live.

<3

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74 notes

  1. gucciprada596 reblogged this from zanytomato
  2. yankeesbackpack reblogged this from zanytomato
  3. gamedesigngirl reblogged this from rachelmahela
  4. rachelmahela reblogged this from zanytomato and added:
    Sounds a lot like me when I was a teenager as well. - I’ve also been contemplating the idea of “for-girls” events, when...
  5. soberingmind reblogged this from zanytomato and added:
    Finally someone who gets me :(
  6. rach33z reblogged this from zanytomato
  7. bungee-machete reblogged this from floerian
  8. floerian reblogged this from zanytomato and added:
    Worth a read.
  9. abbess reblogged this from zanytomato and added:
    Lots of interesting points that ring home even if you’re not in CS.
  10. talesofcrystal reblogged this from zanytomato
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  22. needsmoarmecha reblogged this from zanytomato and added:
    Fantastic read, be sure to click through and read the comments too!
  23. katatsumuli reblogged this from zanytomato
  24. spinoweb reblogged this from zanytomato
  25. spikedearheart reblogged this from chupaflora and added:
    yeah, for me, women’s computer lab events are some of the few i can actually go to and enjoy, while i agree that a lot...
  26. chupaflora reblogged this from insufficientlyadvanced and added:
    Yes yep definitely okay. Going to call hackernews right now and give them the good news. I’m reaching for my phone right...
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